Spiral: Episode 1 is the first installment of a brand new mobile game series from Pixel Hero Games. It seeks to bring big console action to the small screens of our mobile devices by using the Unreal Engine, a fascinating story, and great gameplay. Does it succeed in its quest for mobile gaming glory? Or does this pricey title just spiral out of control after flying too close to the sun?
I have to commend Pixel Hero Games on making a stylish game and presenting it like a cool console title. Spiral has a lot of flair and you can tell a lot of work went into making it as slick as possible, given the constraints of a mobile platform. But with that said, for some reason, it didn't click with me the way I had hoped it would. Try as I might, there were no moments that had me exclaiming, "WOW!" or kept me enraptured enough to keep plodding through the chapters.
The problem, I think, starts at the very beginning as you take control of the main character, Tempus, during a dream of his. This dream sequence acts as a tutorial and shows you the finer points of moving around the world. Everything can be performed with one touch in Spiral, so you can either tap to move or hold your finger down after double-tapping in order to make Tempus move. After he wakes up on a train he talks to A-VA, his -- internal AI? I don't know, because they never really explained what A-VA is or why he has her, but she's very much like Tony Stark's JARVIS.
He and A-VA have been hired to help oversee the transfer of some precious cargo along with the police when suddenly, the train they're on gets attacked by a resistance group. What ensues is a tutorial in the game's combat system. Tempus can form spectral blades, guns, a staff, and even some big, cartoony hands in order to fight his enemies. Circles on the ground let you know what type of attack he'll use based on his proximity to a foe. Tapping on enemies outside of the circles activates his guns, tapping foes in the mid-range prompts staff attacks, and close-range opponents get hit with dual blades.
Holding down during an attack charges up Tempus's energy, which is then released to devastating effect. Holding down even longer, charging up to two full bars, unleashes a very powerful attack that usually triggers a finishing move animation. These are actually quite cool to see and add to the excitement of battle.
Unfortunately, the sometimes unresponsive taps and the fact that you also have to move by tapping make most battles a chore or a crapshoot. If you're surrounded by enemies who are all trying to hit you with attacks that result in a knockdown, your only hope is to doubletap in order to dash out of the way. But most times, you'll just end up getting knocked down anyway. When the combat works, it works. But when it doesn't, you can feel the groans coming on.
Perhaps the biggest strike against this one-tap control scheme is that it works against you during some of the stealth portions of the game. There's a part that takes place in a warehouse during which Tempus must sneak around to eavesdrop in on a meeting. In one room, he's tasked with activating some hooks on the ceiling in order to get to the other side of the room by grappling them. If he gets caught by guards when sneaking towards the consoles that activate the hooks, you'll have to start the mission from the beginning.
Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. Not only does Tempus move at the speed of molasses, but you're not given full control of the camera. Every time he gets to a different part of the room, the camera switches around to a different angle, giving you little to no view of your surroundings. I couldn't count the number of times I got caught because I wasn't able to get a look around a corner to see if a guard was walking my way. And then I'd have to start at the beginning and endure Tempus's lead-footed sneaking once more. It's frustrating because this repeated headache could have been remedied by having a player-controlled camera without any fixed angles.
Other than the shaky controls, the other thing that annoyed me to no end was how ridiculously big, yet empty, the city was. There are different districts you can visit in the game and Tempus will have to travel back and forth each one, but they're so boring and devoid of any points of interest! What's the point in having us walk all the way from one end of the city to another just to suffer through a pointless cut scene? It's annoying enough to have to clunk around with the game's wonky controls, but then to have no pay-off is even worse. Spiral could have benefited from a simple menu click that let you fast-travel to a location, rather than forcing us to trek around for short cut scenes.
The worst was when the start of one part of the game placed me at the front of Tempus's apartment and, after a brief cut scene conversation with A-VA, had me move forward a few steps, only to activate another cut scene! What the hell was the point of me walking forward?! Couldn't the two cut scenes have been combined into one seamless binding without having me waste time and effort just to trigger a short scene with horrible audio quality?
Oh, and that's another thing. The voice-overs in the game are horrendous and sound like they were recorded on a potato. It sounds harsh, but when you're touting a console-like experience and charging a premium price point, I expect a little more. And this isn't a strike against the voice-actors, since they all gave pretty solid performances, but the quality of the audio was so bad that I had to mute the game and work off the subtitles.
But still, Spiral is stylish and deserves merits for its presentation. It's just a shame that there's more style than there is substance. With only seven chapters, you'll likely breeze through it, depending on how much time you have to devote to play sessions. Luckily, there's an Arena mode that lets you duke it out with some of the game's enemies. The experience you gain from the Arena transfers over to the game proper, so you can help boost yourself.
As disappointed as I was in the experience, I can't help but look forward to future installments. There's a lot of promise in Spiral and I'd like to see where the story goes and whether or not Pixel Hero Games will tighten up the controls. For now, I'll rate Episode 1 with a modest 6.5. Let's hope that subsequent episodes warrant higher scores.